The success of MTV in the 1980s also helped propel the careers of many executives still working in music today, several of whom are featured in the A&E documentary “I Want My MTV” (read Variety‘s review), which premieres tonight (Sept. 8). Among those first employees: John Sykes, now the chairman of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and president of iHeartMedia Entertainment.
“The people assembled were the best thing about MTV,” Sykes says, giving full credit to Bob Pittman, the corporate visionary who was essential in bringing MTV to life and now runs iHeartMedia as its CEO and chairman. “None of us had any experience in television — we came from the music business, from Conde Nast, from marketing firms — so that’s why MTV looked like nothing else on television. But that was the plan from day one, to create something that was completely different than the status quo.”
Sykes says he “tortured” Pittman for months to get a meeting with him as MTV was just starting to staff up. The two hit it off and a working partnership and longtime friendship was born.
Adds Sykes: “I loved what I did every day. We were broke all the time, but I didn’t think about the money. And you really didn’t have time to smell the roses. We were too busy surviving [and] just keeping the business going another week, another month. I think we all knew this was going to have an impact on culture, but I don’t think we knew we were making history.”
History was indeed made as “I Want My MTV” chronicles via interviews with the channel’s original DJs, artists like Billy Idol , Sting, Heart’s Nancy Wilson, Annie Lennox and Tori Amos and the channel’s original programmers, marketers and curators including Judy McGrath, Tom Freston, Rick Krim and Sykes, who looked back at five key moments in the channel’s early evolution.
The “I Want My MTV” Campaign
“When the ‘I Want My MTV’ commercial campaign came out, it was to get the cable operators to add the network. They were a bunch of old people who didn’t want MTV so we went and spoke to the fans, who would annoy the cable operators enough to get them to add us. And that happened. The phones rang off the hook.
I was trying desperately to get Pete Townshend to do the ‘I Want My MTV’ [so] I stayed in their manager’s office and would not move until he walked in the door. … All of a sudden I’m face to face with Pete Townshend, who I just worshipped. It was all new to me but I always approached it as a fan. I had my pitch ready to tell him about MTV. I knew he had a new album out, “All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes,” and he wanted to promote it. He knew what videos were because they were used in Europe but didn’t know we had them in America. So I said to him, ‘We’d love to have you sit down and talk to you about your new album and we want to play your video and we want you to do a promotion spot.’ And he said, ‘Ok.” I saw Pete a year after the promotion and he goes, ‘You didn’t tell me this was gonna explode around the world. I can’t walk through an airport now without people yelling., “Hey, Pete, I want my MTV!”‘ So he was smiling, but he was actually quite upset cause when he did the promo he had no idea we were gonna spend 20 million dollars to build a TV campaign and put it all over America.”
Michael Jackson’s Arrival
“We built a channel based on radio formats. It was a rock channel, [but] we saw what Michael Jackson was doing with video and we changed the game. Michael Jackson made MTV, he really did. We were playing Prince and other Black artists, but we were waiting for Michael Jackson. We owe so much of our success to when ‘Billie Jean’ came out and later ‘Thriller.’ We knew a few months in advance, but there was some gamesmanship being played by the record company about whether we would air it or not. We put it on instantly. And sure enough, when ‘Thriller’ came out, it broke records. It was the only video we ever scheduled at the top of the hour, every hour.”
“Another seminal moment was one of our first big contests, which was called the ‘MTV One Night Stand.’ We’d fly you by jet to a concert, you’d go backstage to meet the band, have a great night, fly home that night and go to school the next morning. We did our first one with Journey because I knew Herbie Herbert, the band’s manager. They were the biggest band at that time and they said yes. Then we did one with John Mellencamp for ‘Pink Houses’ where we gave away a house and painted it pink. And we saw all of a sudden we could create these fantasy moments that would play into the dream of teenagers who were in small towns across America just fantasizing about being in this world of rock ‘n’ roll. Rock ‘n’ roll is about escapism and dreaming. So that was our plan from day one — to build a message around that.
“MTV Sells Records”
“Boy George, Madonna, Depeche Mode… MTV was taking music into these towns like a Trojan horse — walking in with the veneer of pop music, but in reality exposing young people to music they would have never found before. We had to prove to the industry that MTV could sell records and impact an artist’s career because, in the early days, they just didn’t believe making videos was worth [the expense]. They weren’t sure we had the impact to sell records. So Tom Freston and I flew around the country and went to the early cable markets that had enough penetration in those cities to impact sales. We went to Syracuse, Houston, Denver, going to record stores asking them if they were making selling and records that radio wasn’t playing. And I remember the day that Tom and I were in Tulsa, the young kid behind the counter said, ‘Duran Duran, who are they? I’ve sold two boxes of records in the last month.’ Tom and I looked at each other and said, ‘We can go home now.’ We flew back to New York and took out a full-page ad in Billboard that said, ‘MTV sells records.’ That was the first sign MTV was on its way to convincing the music industry that we could impact an artist’s career.
Reinventing the Awards Show With the VMAs
“We wanted to do an awards show that spoke to the fans, so instead of going to the traditional people who were doing the AMAs and the Grammys, we did a complete 180 and hired the No. 1 sports producer in the business, Don Ohlmeyer, and asked him to produce a show that was completely unconventional and against the grain. So as a result, we kind of made fun of awards shows and made fun of ourselves at the first VMAs. We put the biggest artists on MTV at that time, like Madonna, onstage, but we presented it in a whole different way. Our categories were different, we had two very sarcastic comedians, Dan Aykroyd and Bette Midler, hosting the event. It set the tone for an awards show that broke all the rules.”